Tuesday, October 18, 2005

MOVIES: Thoughts on 'Elizabethtown'

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Well, I liked "Elizabethtown." For some reason Cameron Crowe's latest movie is the designated critical whipping boy of the month, getting some really terrible reviews, but this longtime Crowe fan for one doesn't get it. I had a fine time with this movie — a son's farewell to his dad, an oddball love story and ode to the South. Perhaps it isn't Crowe's best work, but it's certainly not as bad as you might have heard. Orlando Bloom acquits himself nicely, and Kirsten Dunst was cute as a junebug. It features Crowe's patented mix of wit and insight, bitter pills laced with sugar much like his idol, the late great Billy Wilder.

Bloom, out of his elf ears, is really solid as the hapless Drew Baylor, who manages to lose his Oregon-based shoe company (read: Nike) nearly a billion dollars and has his father die all in the space of a few days. He's got to go to Kentucky to arrange his father's funeral, and deal with all his unfamiliar Southern relatives. Of course, he also meets a girl along the way, a forthright and chipper flight attendant played by Dunst. Bloom has got this deadpan, wide-eyed shock going on which works well for his character, yet he's more empathetic than Zach Braff was in the similiarly themed "Garden State." (Which I feel "Elizabethtown" is superior to, but that's another story.) And Dunst I found was tremendously endearing as yet another of those only-in-movies "quirky girls," and she puts her own stamp on a character that could've been obnoxious in another actress's hands.

How much you like "Elizabethtown" probably depends on your tolerance for sentiment — because it is a very sentimental movie. Yet I rarely found it to be manipulative, and that to me is a critical difference. Sentimental means the movie makes you feel a certain way; manipulative means you can feel it forcing you to feel that way.

Crowe's movies have always danced on that line between sentiment and manipulative, and almost always fall on the right side of it … Lloyd Dobler with his boombox from "Say Anything" has become an icon for romance, or "Jerry Maguire" and the whole "You complete me" speech. "Almost Famous" - his finest work to date - is riddled with moments that draw up the lump in your throat, unbidden.

Unless, of course, you're just not into that kind of sentimentalism, which is fine -– and that I think was kind of the kneejerk reaction of some critics to "Elizabethtown." It also does have its flaws -- it's shapeless, somehow, lacking a tight structure. It feels like it still needed a little editing. I didn't mind too much – if you enjoy a movie, it can rarely feel too long. Crowe's tendency to tack a rock song onto every scene also verges on overdone here (still a great Southern rock-tinged soundtrack, though). Susan Sarandon's character of Drew's mother never quite works, and a dialogue by her toward the end of the film is really awkward.

But y'know, it's still the Cameron Crowe I know, the one whose every movie I've enjoyed (even the experimental and dark "Vanilla Sky"). In the end, "Elizabethtown" is also optimistic, and maybe that turned some critics away. Optimism isn't hip anymore, perhaps. Yet it's the truest thing we've got sometimes. "Elizabethtown" is sentimental, yeah, and it even choked me up a bit in a few scenes. (Just a little - I am a manly man, after all.) Give it a chance.

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